The Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway, the tallest building in the world when it was built in 1913, annoyed some modernist architects for its neo-Gothic ornamentation and bothered others for just being so tall. It was impressive for its design and engineering, with the steel frame skeleton supported by enormous caissons driven deep into the earth. The elevators were faster and more plentiful than in other buildings at the time, a profitable factor that Frank Woolworth appreciated for his "cathedral of commerce."
Minnesota architect Cass Gilbert (1859-1934) designed several important buildings for 20th century New York. The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House (1902-1907) at 1 Bowling Green, his first big commission, is a lavish Beaux Arts- style masterpiece. The New York Life Building (1926-28) is a massive building that blends neo-Gothic with the geometries of more modern 1920s structures.
He designed the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, where I spent my undergraduate years, and also buildings for the campus of The University of Texas in Austin, including Battle Hall (1911), a Spanish-Mediterranean Revival building that houses the architecture library and is considered one of the best structures in Texas. I only bring this up because I spent many pleasurable hours inside Battle Hall researching my master's thesis on the American skyscraper. I remember how I would sometimes look up from my books and gaze at the windows and ceiling and thinking about wanting to live in such a place.
This morning I walked south through Soho on Mercer Street until Canal, walked a block east and then continued south on Broadway until I reached the Woolworth Building. I sat in City Hall Park across the way and looked at the building for some time. The neo-Gothicism lends the building the ecclesiastical aura, but there's little doubt of its secular intent as permanent outdoor advertising. What it doesn't look like at all, interestingly, is a Woolworth store.
The Woolworth Building hovers in my field of vision whenever I walk through downtown, and I've started to invest in it spiritual meaning and power. Maybe angels hang out up there, like the ones dressed in trench coats in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire.
Image: The Woolworth Building, 233 Broadway.
See nearby places in Tribeca:
Establishing Shots: The Tribeca Film Festival
The Tribeca of Duane: Duane Street and Duane Park
Tribeca Living: A Building for Chocolate, and One for the Wool Trade
In Search of the Lower West Side: Before Tribeca
Walking Off Tribeca and Remembering Mostly Lunch
Walking Off Tribeca: The Lay of the Land
Walking Off Tribeca: Starting at Square One